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Tuesday, 11 November 2008
Page: 54

Senator JOYCE (Leader of the Nationals in the Senate) (5:57 PM) —In dealing with issues addressed in the Trade Practices Amendment (Clarity in Pricing) Bill 2008 it is very important that we try to bring honesty back into the system of the sale of products. It has been quite evident that, in the past, more and more clouds have been cast over the way products are sold. It has always been the intention, especially of the coalition government, that the consumer would have a right of clear transparency when purchasing products. There have been occasions in the past when this has become obscured by the break-up of goods into parts and the identification of prices of the particular parts has been a mechanism of deception and concern. I think it is imperative as we go forward with this legislation that we acknowledge that trade practices law in Australia has got to march up to the world where we are living. We are living in the 21st century and, ipso facto, the market at times, not always, does fail and the capacity for the market to redeem or fix itself is lost.

Obviously, if we truly had a pure market with easy entry, with easy exit and with a capacity for new entrants to come in and bring a position of honesty into the market then the reliance on the Trade Practices Act would be limited and, in a perfect world, would not be required. But so often in trade practices law, in the life of commerce, the centralisation and the inhibitors that come to easy entry and easy exit in the market mean that the government does have a role. It has a role to step in and act as a conduit to the forces that are not there, to try as best it can to mimic what a free market would be able to do. It has always been the contention of many on the conservative side of politics that, although having a government continually and unnecessarily interposing in the market is not a desired outcome, it is a necessary evil when the market has basically lost the capacity to balance itself by natural action.

Especially with the advent of the GST, in the pricing structure of certain items it was expected that there would no longer be the capacity to break up items into particular parts and price them accordingly as a means and a mechanism to confuse the purchaser. There was one exemption, and that was the exemption for postage and handling and for things that were an addendum and clearly identified as away from the product. But more and more people took the liberty of being able to use an extension of this in such a way as to obscure the price. This piece of legislation, I hope, starts to deal with this facet and to bring it back to what was intended by the coalition: to be a clear—and that is why it is called ‘clarity in pricing’—and a better reflection to the community that is involved with the product of exactly what is part of that product. This should be generally supported. The intent of it is well known.

But I hope that it is also just one step of many steps that we have to look at. We also have legislation on creeping acquisitions that will be coming here in the near future. We are already underway on section 51AC, on unconscionable conduct. Changes have been made and instigated, initially by the coalition government, to section 46, on predatory pricing. And all the time we have to go through the balancing act of making sure that we are not overt in the marketplace but we recognise the marketplace to be imperfectly driven by what John Maynard Keynes always believed to be a desire to centralise to a point—and on centralisation to a point comes the loss of those forces that have the capacity to give the consumer an honest price from an honest marketplace.

More and more, a sense of confusion has been brought about by vendors’ greater capacity to break things up in certain ways so that people cannot really compare apples with apples because what they are actually being sold is a stem, a core, a skin and the flesh, and they are all bundled in such a way that people do not quite know what they are buying. The first price is obviously seen as a good price, but, when they have to add up all the other component parts necessary to get the total product, they actually have a very bad outcome. Clarity in pricing is an issue that we hope starts to deal with this factor.

It is going to be interesting to see, as we progress down this path, what further actions have to be taken so that the consumer can readily see what their price is. It is important that the intent that this chamber is showing, especially with clarity in pricing, is also the intent that it shows on other issues that come before it, such as creeping acquisitions. I look forward to the government being honest in their appraisal of creeping acquisitions. I look forward to them being brave enough to deal with what is truly required in creeping acquisitions. When legislation on section 51AC, on unconscionable conduct, comes forward, I hope that in that issue as well we get a sense of proportion to deal with the fact that, as we currently see under unconscionable conduct laws, we have only had two successful cases in 10 years. That tells us quite a bit about the paucity that is currently in the Trade Practices Act.

Hopefully, with a sense of bipartisan consensus, we can move forward on these issues to bring about a better oversight and a capacity for the ACCC to truly stand up as an independent player in this which works on behalf of the consumer, not on behalf of other interests that may be affecting its decisions from time to time. We also hope, in that process of making sure that the ACCC remains the independent champion for the consumer, that we do not have the occasion where senators are threatened with defamation cases to be taken before—I do not know—the High Court because they dare to question. We do not want that. We do not want a situation where certain people are intimating that there might be legal proceedings against them if they dare to question the role of the ACCC.

Obviously I hope this issue is one where we see a clear consensus so that, with clarity of pricing, we offer back to the consumer the sense that the market is not there to deceive, that the market is not there to basically rip them off. Clarity of pricing really takes the legislation to a position where the coalition presumed it was going to be anyhow with the introduction of the GST. The introduction of the GST was supposed to bring forward a form where there would have to be clarity in pricing. It is just by evolving over time that we now see that further legislation is required. I commend this piece of legislation to the Senate. It should not have been required, but it is required. I hope, for what it is worth, that we can at least shelve this issue so that we have a clear deck before we start taking on creeping acquisitions and unconscionable conduct, which I know will have a far greater resonance within the chamber and will probably involve a more heated debate.